CORREZE DAYS: What's so funny about black socks?

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The Independent Online
In the profound darkness of a wooded ridge, high above the gorges of the Dordogne River, angry Gallic cries disturbed a languid, storm-threatened evening. "We are the Earth team. Earth leader where are you?"

"Go away. I can't help, I am the Fire leader and I've lost my team." Since I was part of the Air team, and as far as I could tell, our entire group was hopelessly lost, I couldn't help much either.

Fifty grown people, and one seven-year-old boy, were stumbling about in the gloom and heat, trying to locate three simple games - darts, Trivial Pursuit and a memory contest - hidden somewhere in the 70 acres of grounds of a small chateau with pointed, fairy-tale turrets.

It was Charlie's fault. I had seen quite enough of holiday entertainment, French-style, at the karaoke evening the night before. (In French karaoke, quavering renditions of Edith Piaf replace tuneless versions of Frank Sinatra; "La Vie en Rose" and "Je Ne Regrette Rien" stand in for "My Way"). But Charlie, aged seven, is a devotee of entertainment of any kind, from opera to Noel's House Party. He insisted on taking part in the fun and games every night.

Our task was, on a modest scale, like Jeux Sans Frontieres, meets orienteering. The teams had to locate and complete all the hidden challenges and get back to the converted barn which was Fun HQ. The sadistic twist was that no team could attempt a challenge until every member of the group was present: hence the anxious wailing for friends lost in the dark.

This was not Butlin's, nor even Club Med. It was a charmingly disorganised family-run colonie de vacances: a three-star hotel, with three other categories of accommodation - bungalows, chalets and camps-sites - scattered in the surrounding forest. We were in one of the chalets and the only non-French family around.

There was a record number of foreign tourists in France this summer but we were in Correze, President Jacques Chirac's home departement, which is pretty but unspectacular and not near the sea. The tourists were further south or further west.

The atmosphere was informal and relaxed: entertainment of the dottiest kind was provided but there was no enforced jollity. There were scores of rules and rigid timetables: but none was ever applied. No one rose before 10am. The pieces de resistance were the 19th-century chateau and its elegant, but grubby, Thirties swimming pool, overlooking ridge upon ridge of west-central France. It was as if this there had been another French revolution: the bourgeoisie had been disposed of; and the chateau turned over to cheap holidays for the workers.

Holidays of this kind, in the green depths of France, away from the crowds, away from the foreigners, are becoming increasingly popular with French people, who, like everyone else, like to go on holiday in France. But our fellow holiday-makers showed no sign of resenting our interloping presence; amusement yes; resentment no.

One of our chalet neighbours was a muscular young Parisian policeman, with two neat, long-healed bullet wounds in his side. Aristide was on holiday with his wife (Francine), his mother-in-law (Francine) and two tough little boys, Mathieu and Thomas. At first, he would roar with laughter whenever he saw us, as if the concept of foreigners was irresistibly funny. Maybe it was my blue canvas shoes and black socks. Black socks, usually worn with sandals, are said by the French to be the certain sign of an Englishman on holiday.

There was also a strange little girl, aged four or five, who would come to stare at us, but refuse to say anything. Clare, three, found the way to deal with her. She covered her from head to toe in pieces of grass: the little girl still refused to move or say a word.

But Charlie and Clare played boules with all the other children; and Charlie rode his bike with them into the woods. By the end of the week, even Aristide could almost talk to us with a straight face.

I was, however, cruelly discriminated against on the night of the manoeuvres in the dark. Our team leader was an earnest young man who had missed the whole point and thought the idea of the game was to come first. When we finally located the Trivial Pursuit (in the camp-site showers), I came to his rescue. I knew what the capital of Ireland was.

None the less, when we found the darts, in a tumble-down hut, our leader brushed me aside. I may be useless at boules; Clare regularly defeats me. But as an Englishman, trained in the pubs of Staffordshire and Lancashire, I thought I had a national right to throw the darts. The leader insisted on doing it himself. He missed all the targets and we scored nul points. To Charlie's disgust, our team came last.